Deans and gift officers are usually hired through separate university and foundation processes, arriving at their jobs with divergent backgrounds and metrics for success. Yet, they must work together to raise the maximum possible dollars for academic priorities.
A key is for deans, as senior partners in this relationship, to lead quiet conversations with their gift officer about each other’s incentive structures and operating environments. This builds the credibility and trust required between fundraising partners. It’s smart for deans to be proactive, with turnover rates for gift officers estimated at eighteen months.
This advice comes from personal experience. For fifteen years, I served as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences/Lohre Distinguished Professor at the University of South Dakota (USD) before finishing up my career as president/CEO of the non-profit Gettysburg Foundation. Thereafter, I came out of retirement to help raise money part-time for my old College of Arts & Sciences but this time through the USD Foundation.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now, to quote Joni Mitchell.
Here’s a small sampling of issues where deans and gift officers may see fundraising differently:
- Cold calls to most anyone are viewed as a waste of time amidst a frenetic existence for deans, who are not in the donor-qualification business. But gift officers will worry that high-end donors will brush them off, and with it, a chance to break through. Then too, they may secretly fret about making a critical mistake that aborts a donor relationship.
- Campus invitations are attractive for gift officers to dangle because their chances for a future gift are increased if donors interact with students on campus. This can prompt gift officers to suggest guest-teaching opportunities. Deans are rightly worried about quality control with donor-driven speakers, cognizant of the faculty’s views about the sanctity of the classroom.
- Closing out receipt of a gift is a way for gift officers to talk up their dean in an ingratiating way in the presence of other university officials. But flattering the dean by calling him/her out as a magical closer predicts future success in a wildly unpredictable business. Worse yet, it invites those overhearing to furtively size up the dean’s personal charm and charisma.
It’s incumbent upon deans through open conversation to set parameters around cold calls and guest lecturing, and to tamp down public conversation of partner roles in future asks. Most gift officers will be relieved to know the rules, and by extension, the exceptions.
But truly bridging the professional divide requires more than anticipatory conversation on minor issues. Deans need to be up front about their own incentives and operating environment with gift officers. Here’s some of what bounces around in a dean’s head if he or she is honest about it.
I serve at the pleasure of higher ups. I’ll likely be dean for about five years, the national average. Short-term smaller gifts realized during my deanship could be more advantageous to my career than larger gifts banked after I’m done.
My next professional step will probably have little to do with fundraising. If I’m remanded back to the faculty, fundraising success on my CV will be a strange outlier with little impact unless I reenter the administrative job market; if I rise up in the administrative hierarchy to the logical role of provost, I’ll be in the trenches of campus academic life and not on the fundraising trail. Fundraising now may be for a job one-step removed.
Annual evaluation determines my salary. Decided by the provost and not the foundation, it will be based primarily on my success in building academic programs, recruiting/retaining students, and making wise budget and personnel decisions. Even if I hit some assigned fundraising metric, it won’t be easy to convince the provost it happened because of my personal fundraising efforts.
Many faculty think the fundraising enterprise is slightly yucky, raising money from the students they helped educate. My department chairs may pay lip-service to fundraising, but their careers are squarely centered on the tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service. At most, I’ll get their episodic help.
I’m strapped for time. I need a gift officer who knows when to bring me in and when to leave me out. I’m willing to grant them a couple miscalculations but it can’t be a steady problem. Beyond that, I need someone who knows me well enough to dispatch me to mostly or only those donors with whom I am likely to click.
When my gift officer travels, it is 100% of their job. When I travel to fundraise, it’s still a fraction of my job. I’ll face a big rush of business before I leave and after I return, and some will seize the opportunity to complicate matters while I’m known to be away. Fundraising really hits my work-life balance hard.
None of these private thoughts prevent you as dean from becoming an effective fundraiser. By giving them up, you’ve given up nothing. You merely stated realities if others paused to think of it from your vantage point. But such transparency about your own fundraising world will build credibility and prove helpful to all but the most seasoned gift officers.
In turn, spend time absorbing and acknowledging that you understand the gift officer’s situation. I was fortunate to work with some skilled gift officers who were very different people. Common to their job, though, is that they are confronted with undeniable metrics such as total number of contacts per annum and money in the door. They operate within a system of steadily pushing donors toward giving known as “moves management” with its odd language of prospects and suspects that may sound foreign to a dean; yet, it is central to their career, so you show respect as dean by learning about it in detail. Compared to deans who have much easier donor access, gift officers may knock on many doors before they are let in. So much of their professional time is spent chasing what eventually prove to be dead ends, a demoralizing situation that a dean ought to acknowledge. And this cycle will continue indefinitely because gift officers rely on a database that daily loses key information as donors move around and/or suffer health or financial reversals.
The moral of this story is that the dean should share his/her fundraising perspective and ought to care enough about their gift officer’s career to learn about their operating environment. Exclusive conversations between fundraising partners can help bring more money in the door.
Matthew C. Moen, PhD, helps design all facets of fundraising campaigns for the liberal arts and sciences as an independent consultant. Recipient of the 2020 Liberal Arts Advocacy Award from the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences, he may be reached at: email@example.com.